Retro Otaku’s Japan travel tips

Soba noodles

I don’t claim to be a guru about traveling over to Japan having only had the opportunity to visit last year for the first time, but figured I’d add something to the sea of information out there based on our experiences last year.

Language

Do not bark at people in English. While English is widely taught in school, it doesn’t mean everyone is suddenly completely fluent in it. In Australia most high school children learn a language, but that in no way guarantees they’ll be able to use it outside the classroom. If you’re traveling to Japan, read up on at least some useful phrases and grab an app for your smartphone/tablet or a pocket phrasebook so that you can express how amazing the ramen you just ate in a tiny neighbourhood eat-in really was. Japanese is built on phonetic patterns of vowels, and pay attention to softening said-vowels. Probably influenced by North American pronounciation, too many people seem inclined to harden their vowels when they speak the language – listen closely to when native speakers fire out the language and take some inspiration.

It probably won’t hurt to learn some hiragana and katakana as well (and if you’re feeling adventurous, add some kanji into the mix). Even if it’s just some basics – being able to read references to your choices of travel (100-yen shops, arcades [Game Centres], anime or manga stores, book shops, budo shops, ramen, takoyaki, okonomiyaki) will make it easier finding the places you always wanted to go visit and stumbling along other opportunities!

You’ll also find language will vary from location to location – Tokyo has a fair whack of English translations against its signage to make it easier to get around, though the further out you go it starts getting a bit more sparse (Ohta, where we visited the Sega building, didn’t have much English signage and both Miitaka and Takao were a bit limited in parts as well). We found that Kyoto needed a bit more attention when getting around in comparison, same with Hiroshima and Osaka. Don’t stress if you get lost though – the locals were always amazing when we asked for help, but just make an effort to meet them half-way by speaking a bit of Japanese ?

Food

Get adventurous when you go to Japan! Ramen, udon, sushi, takoyaki, izakaya fare, okonomiyaki – these are just scratching the surface of all the amazing food over there! While it’s fun to take some time to check out the Japanese take on Western cuisine and take-out food, don’t chicken out and miss out on the fun stuff. One of the most memorable meals while we were away was hitting the neighbourhood soba place near Sega in Ohta – the meals were less than $3 each and it was absolutely delicious! Beer is also delicious off the tap in Japanese pubs despite being dirt cheap, and keep in mind that a number of places will actually have a vending machine out the front you use to select and purchase your meals (including note and coin slots), then you take a seat and wait for your meal to be finished up, collect and then return to your table to tuck in (or they’ll bring it out to you). Feel free to try some unusual gear from the armies of vending machines dotted around cityscapes too, and indulge in Japanese iced tea (hint: they’re not loaded with sugar).

Crime and safety

Don’t be an arsehole and you’ll probably be fine in Japan. The place was incredibly safe compared to home – people would leave handbags and shopping on tables in food courts when they went off to grab food from one of the outlets, prams were left loaded with personal goods outside stores and in amusement parks without the need for supervision. It was a nice change from back home. While we didn’t push any buttons while we were over there and can’t speak from experience about getting out of trouble, if you find yourself in a bad situation be nice and polite. Do not be a tool and get drunk, pick a fight with the locals while being filmed and getting it uploaded into YouTube.

Appearance

Gaijin could do a bit better in Japan. I’m not saying you need to set the pace when visiting the likes of Shibuya or Harajuku, but don’t dress like you’ve just woken up and walked out the door in a pair of baggy trackies (sweat pants to those not used to the Australian vernacular) and a t-shirt that’s seen better days, or making your way around the Tokyo train system dressed like you’re heading out to climb a mountain in a third world country (I’m not kidding – spotted a guy in the Shinjuku Station cranking a small backpack with several water bottles and hiking boots dressed in khaki like he was about to leave civilisation). I certainly didn’t set any precedents over there so it might seem a bit hypocritical, but it’s as good an opportunity as any to take some pride in your appearance ?

Mind, I’m doing this from my perspective as a guy – my gender limits me to being in the thick of things with the same appreciation for social norms as the opposite sex, but the etiquette research beforehand and what we noticed over there suggests that legs are fine to show off and crazy heels are an amazing idea, but perhaps be a touch conservative with your chest for the daily grind. Mind, a plunging v-neck on a guy sporting a hairy hipster chest won’t exactly win you any awards (you might be able to get away with it if you’re making a statement in Yoyogi Park on a Sunday with a crepe though!).

The art of walking

Did you know that we don’t know how to walk in public? I guess when you have that level of population density it comes part of the routine. It doesn’t mean that everyone walks fast, it’s just everyone knows how to bob, duck and weave through the human sea and be comfortable with cramming into the subway in sardine-like conditions (which, to be honest, isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be). Just be prepared to go with the flow – it’s a pretty interesting experience and when you get home (assuming you don’t live in a super high-density city, which we haven’t noticed in little old Australia), it adds some perspective!

Inside voice

My speaking voice is loud. In Japan, you don’t speak loudly, so be considerate of others, and if I can get into the habit of not being a noisy pain in the arse, anyone can. This is especially prominent on trains – even when they’re packed, they’re quiet, at least in most cases (they were a bit noisier in Osaka!). By extension, note the decorum in public when it comes to your phone as well – don’t speak on your mobile phone when on public transport, but texting, listening to music and gaming’s okay as long as you’re wearing earphones or headphones. At least that’s what we noticed in our travels and from all the stuff plastered around the place.

Arcades

Here’s a tip – if you find yourself playing a round of Street Fighter, BlazBlue or Virtua Fighter against a fellow gamer and find yourself getting your arse handed to you on round 1, winning round 2, then getting torn apart in round 3, you actually weren’t amazing in round 2, you were being treated to some local hospitality (thanks Steve at Super Gaijin Ultra Gamer for the tip!). In addition, it’s a bit of a faux pas to take photos or videos in arcades over there (though Wifey took some photos and videos while I was gaming without incident). Just be subtle about it and be aware you’ll be asked to leave if staff catch you. The same goes for video game stores – I would have loved to have taken some video footage and recorded my nerdisms when wandering around Super Potato or Mandarake, but IIRC there are plenty of signs warning that photography is a no-no in shops as well.

Shopping

Customer service is pretty awesome in our experiences. Granted I didn’t understand everything at the checkout since my Japanese is a bit rubbish, but it was at least polite! The handy bit is that most cash registers will display the amount owing in Yen (I’m bad with numbers in Japanese!), but remember to use the little tray they provide to plonk your cash in. The operator will then take the cash, count it back, take the money and put the change in the plastic tray for you to take and you’re good to go.

This leads onto the next shopping bit – go with cash as your primary means of spending where possible. We found most of the 7-Elevens had ATMs that accepted foreign credit cards and we used our travel Visa cards to withdraw cash in chunks as we went through the trip. On a couple of occasions I was caught short (the one I remember most is in Mandarake in Akihabara on the second visit towards the end of the trip, who handily had credit card facilities), but most of the time cash sorted stuff out. The exception to this rule is with hotels (all accepted credit cards) and I’m pretty sure the big department stores will also take credit cards (well, Visa and MasterCards anyways).

Internet access

Wifi access was intermittent when we were over in Japan – some had free wifi, some had limited wifi access, some none. We didn’t have a lot of luck hopping onto hotspots while we wandered around the place, but at the same time internet access was a bit of an optional perk rather than a necessity when we were there.

However, if you want to get online in Japan, some of my friends (thanks Kate and Sly!) have suggested grabbing a pocket wifi device when you get into the country and use that. You’ll get access to Japan’s comparatively excellent (compared to Australia :P) mobile network speed/coverage and since it’s a pocket wifi device you can attach anything with a wifi connection (thus great for consoles, smartphones, tablets and laptops).

… well, that’s it for now. I’ve probably missed some stuff as I’ve gone back and added to this a couple of times already, but it’s been a while since I’ve written on the blog ? Hopefully this will mark a more sporadic blogging habit rather than the long awkward pauses over the last few months!

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Japan 2012 Travel Diary, Day 9

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The original plan for Hiroshima was to head to Miwajima in the morning before jumping on another Shinkansen to Osaka, but Wifey was still struggling with her cold/flu bug so we decided to have a bit of a sleep in to rest up, had the hotel hold our bags then went to spend some more time exploring around where we were staying in Hiroshima.

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It’s a pity we only stayed overnight as Hiroshima is a beautiful city that balances the new and the traditional sides of Japan, with an amazing social history and is super clean and pristine. We went for another wander down Hondori and a few other spots locally, stopping for lunch at a Doutor for a lunch of lettuce dogs (!), matcha cake (again) and some tea. While we were there an old lady wandered up to our table for a chat – turns out her son and his family live in Canada and we had a chat that intermingled between Japanese and English, and at the end of it she also passed along an English guide map of Hiroshima for us. It’s things like this that really make stints overseas memorable, and certainly solidified Hiroshima as a city we wish we had more time enjoy. If we have the opportunity to return to Japan in the future, I know we’ll be earmarking more time to spend here – the city and its people are wonderful, and the Book Off was well-stocked and full of awesome 🙂

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After lunch we picked up our luggage and jumped on the train back to Shin-Osaka and managed to get in by late-afternoon. Transferring from Shin-Osaka through to Osaka Station we had our first experience of Osaka people – people were actually having animated conversations on the train! In the other places we traveled, the advised maxim of being quiet on public transport (and in public in general) was shunned by a city’s occupants who seemed naturally more boisterous in public than we had noticed elsewhere. Was very interesting and certainly rides home the difference between east/west in Japan!

After arriving at Osaka Station we found our way to the JR Line to take us to our hotel, the Universal Port Hotel located near the Universal Studios amusement park and the adjoining Universal City Walk. Dodging the allure of the Universal City Walk, we exited the station and turned left to take a pedestrian road to get to our destination. The hotel was all sorts of awesome – a porter took our luggage up to our room (I helped her load the bags though, as by this stage our bags were hitting around the 20kg mark and the girl helping us looked like she was going to struggle!), showed us the amenities and complemented me on my command of Japanese; while I think she was only being polite, it was a nice gesture nonetheless!

The hotel room itself was also incredibly spacious – as we went from place to place In Japan the rooms seemed to be getting bigger, and what I loved about this room was that the bathroom was very Japanese – sink grate on the floor with a stool to sit on with the shower head mounted above to wash yourself, and then a full separate bath next to it to unwind and enjoy a furo Japanese style 🙂 Truth be told, I got a little carried away with the bath thing while we were in Japan – most nights after we got back to the hotel I ended up scrubbing down and then relaxing in the tub afterwards 😛

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But the real magic was the toilet – I’ll let the panel above espouse the majesty (and complexity) of the thing. It was even fitted with an infrared sensor that automatically opened the lid when you entered the separate toilet room. Very 2001/HAL. Oh Kubrick, you so visionary.

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Now being Australian, the whole Halloween thing isn’t much of a deal down our way, but in Osaka it was on. Probably due to where we were staying, we noticed when we were coming to the train station that the carriages soon became packed with teens and uni students dressed up and ready to have a good time. While Japanese girls generally show off a lot of leg here, everything was out there for Halloween – boobs and legs were equally at ease with some amazing and elaborate costumes.

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While the guys didn’t seem to get into it as much as the girls, we saw an amazing Edward Scissorhands there, and another dude looked like a stripper cop, complete with fake gun and smoking a cigarette, with his girlfriend also dressed like a stripper cop (the fake gun would also have been a faux pax back home considering how realistic it looked!).

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Universal City Walk is an amusingly Japanese take on the boardwalk – neon and LCD screens line the multi-story shops, and we checked out the Jump Store (Shounen Jump goodies therein), a collectables shop full of all sorts of Japanese and American paraphernalia (Batman, Superman, Ben 10, Garfield, Aliens, Back to the Future, Astro Boy, etc) which also housed a museum of classic Japanese and American properties. There were also clothes shops selling new and vintage clothing, and plenty of places to eat. After a stop at the awesome Takoyaki Museum (highly recommended!) we tucked into one of the local takoyaki places to dig in while the hilariawesome Takoyaki Museum theme song played over the mall’s PA system. We had saved ourselves for takoyaki until we got to Osaka and the wait was worth it – we picked up a mixed plate of takoyaki with different toppings and washed it down with melon Fanta (tasted just like Midori, but without the fun alcohol content!).

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After eating some food we ventured back out onto the street to continue checking out stores and go people-watching. There was a great Universal gift store with all sorts of gear – they had a pretty sizable collection of Peanuts goodies there, but that seemed to be common around the traps while we were in Japan, Snoopy & co were regulars on all sorts of gear, from bottled water to plushies. We ended up walking the length of the pedestrian street until we hit the Universal Studios Japan theme park entrance, but we had decided to skip visiting the park while we were in Osaka to occupy ourselves with other stuff. Still, it was cool to see that the theme park was also getting into the Halloween spirit!

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We grabbed a couple of drinks from the Starbucks at the train station end of the Universal City Walk (noting the crepe stand along the way for another evening when we weren’t stuffed full of takoyaki) to take back to the hotel and were fortunate to have wifi in our room again, so we were able to drop family and friends a quick hello before getting some sleep. Osaka certainly put up an amazing welcome for us after day one.

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Oh, and a quick update – the last couple of posts had the landscape shots a bit smaller than usual (500px wide vs 750px); I’ve re-uploaded them with slightly larger images and also re-uploaded some of the panorama shots from the Takao climb as well (1200px instead of the 750px versions added previously).

To view all posts on the Japan 2012 Travel Diary, just use the 2012 Japan Trip tag, as the whole series will be added to it over time.

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Japan 2012 Travel Diary, Day 8

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Kyoto wound down the temperature on the day we left, to the point where Wifey and I both rugged up in warm jackets as we made the trip from Karasuma-Oike to Kyoto Station. Once we had transferred we hopped onto the Shinkansen to make our way to Hiroshima. Since we were using the JR Rail Pass to cover the trip, we jumped on one of the Sakura trains to get from Kyoto to Osaka (technically Shin-Osaka since that’s the name of the station), then we caught another Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka to Hiroshima. The reason for the two-step process is because only selected Shinkansen travel directly between Kyoto and Hiroshima and these aren’t covered by the rail pass (e.g. the Nozomi train). Still, in total we spent less than two hours for the trip.

We were a little disappointed that Wifey and I weren’t able to get adjoining seats on the Shin-Osaka to Hiroshima part of the trip as all adjoining seats were all booked up, which saw my other half next to a Japanese woman who seemed inclined to partake in the great Japanese tradition of sleeping while on public transport, which left me next to salaryman enjoying some classic Golgo 13 manga. What eventuated was pretty unexpected though, as he started up a conversation on the way to practice his English, which was an unexpected but a really interesting experience. I asked him a few questions on where he was from, Japanese etiquette and the language, and he in turn asked about where I came from and what we’ve up to in Japan. Things took a nerdy turn when we got onto the topic of music and amplifiers, and it was awesome to have a chat to someone with a huge deal of enthusiasm for music and playback equipment, especially since he runs some amazing equipment (delicious tube amps and what-not) as part of his business in the music industry.

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We got into Hiroshima at around midday, and the temperature was noticeably warmer than Kyoto, once again throwing off any attempt we made to normalise to the weather patterns over here. We caught the number 1 street car (exit the Shinkansen area, turn right and follow the prompts to the bus and tram service) for ¥150 each to the station nearest our one-night stopover hotel, the ANA Crowne Plaza. After dumping our bags we wandered out back into the sunshine (stripping off jackets) and started the trek to the Peace Park. We stopped in at a Japanese restaurant on the way to grab a bite – I jumped aboard the udon train again and grabbed a set that consisted of delicious udon with some shredded pork and a pair of local onigiri; Wifey indulged in some mis-based udon with croquets and onigiri. We then continued the walk over to the museum and encountered a veritable small village of Japanese students that had arrived via a contingent of tour buses. We walked in alongside them, bought our tickets, then walked through the doors.

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The Hiroshima Peace Park is an altogether sobering yet morbidly fascinating experience. It’s difficult to articulate what it means to walk through the museum, read the stories and watch the footage, but upon leaving you are surrounded by a revulsion for war and the indiscriminate power of atomic warfare. There are displays and scale models of Hiroshima before and after the blast, clothing and other household goods recovered in the aftermath, copies of letters from noted leaders in the sciences and politics that cover the call to action for research into atomic warfare and subsequent protestations of the way in which the research was utilised, the content of which is beyond the scope of this blog – having double-majored in history and Japanese studies at Uni with a general interest in the two World Wars last century, I could wax lyrical on this topic for ages!

What was particularly interesting was the museum’s specific notation of the gaps in Japan’s national education curriculum around the global conflict that resulted in World War 2, as while I was aware of this due to my prior studies, it was refreshing to see this publicly acknowledged in the museum. Again, discussion on how this should be addressed is definitely beyond the scope of this commentary (and to be honest, this discussion isn’t only pertinent to Japan – the US and Australian primary and secondary school curriculums are also lacking in many respects around World War 1 and 2, especially due to how the Cold War’s political environment has had a lasting effect on how different country’s contributions to the conflict are taught), but it was enlightening nonetheless.

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Outside the museum are extensive green areas and gardens, and while Wifey and I were walking around we were approached by a lot of young Japanese students so they could practice their English for us as part of what looked to be an assignment given to them by their teachers. Part of the questions that had been assigned to them included what we thought was the most impressive thing about Hiroshima – each time I answered by the Peace Park, but I was tempted to put down the big Book Off near Hondori but decided to answer honestly instead of being cheeky 🙂 We found they seemed to gravitate towards me, not too sure why – maybe it was the ranga beard or the nerdy t-shirt. The funny part was after they finished asking questions I’d thank them in Japanese or say some other quip as they left, and they all seemed quite surprised I could speak any of the language! There were a couple of instances where a couple of groups I swear were about to come up to us, but then giggled and ran off. All in all, it was pretty funny and good fun.

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Across one of the rivers nearby was the remains of one of the buildings that survived the blast, and it was awe-inspiring and humbling to walk past it. I’ve always advocated that anyone in favour of nuclear warfare should go and watch Isao Takahata’s powerful Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies), but after visiting the Peace Park, I would also add that to the agenda.

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Once we had finished wandering through the parklands surrounding the museum we headed to Hondori, one of the more prominent shopping districts in Hiroshima. After checking out a couple of ¥100 shops and hobby stores we came across a Taito Game Station arcade, so of course we had to drop in 🙂

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Like most of the arcades in Japan, it was a multi-story affair with different games cropping up thematically on each floor. The first two floors were crane games, then after that it got interesting. I ended up settling on a round of Darius Burst, a 4-player cooperative horizontal shmup that runs over three screens for a massive panoramic playing field. After tanking pretty quickly, the allure of Super Street Fighter 4 AE caught me, so I inserted ¥100 and managed to get two credits off it owing to a special happening that week.

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Now I’ve probably mentioned it earlier, but I’m not very good at SSF4AE – I haven’t invested enough time into it to be any kind of reasonable, so I’ve settled into being comfortable with my status as a Ken scrub 🙂 That being said, at one stage a Japanese gamer sat on the opposite side to challenge me with Ryu, and I managed to actually win the match (as in both rounds)! After chatting with Hollo from Super Gaijin Ultra Gamer and finding out that Japanese players will often go easy on you for round 2 in fighting games only to take you down in the final round, it was pretty cool that I managed to actually win a full match (was very close though!!).

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However, it was short lived when he jumped in as Juri and tore me a new arsehole, but still, it was so much fun. Despite arcades in Japan having a no-photos policy, Wifey did it gaijin style and took a few snaps using her phone and a bit of footage of me losing, so that was also pretty awesome (even though I lost, because it was in a Japanese arcade) 🙂 On the way out I tried my hand at one of the crane games, but failed. Still, the awesomeness won out, absolutely!

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At this stage it was getting late in the afternoon and well after the 2pm check-in time for our room, so after walking the length of Hondori we unintentionally took the scenic route back to the hotel, only getting lost once or twice, before finding our way back there. After getting settled in I left Wifey to have some rest (her cold was still kicking pretty hard at this stage) and wondered up the road to visit the Super Bazaar Book Off near Hondori. This place was indeed massive, so this time I thought I’d look for some LDs in addition to games. While I didn’t find any, I did unintentionally walk into two different porn sections before finding the anime and game art books, eventually securing myself a You’re Under Arrest art book that focused purely on the OVAs, which was awesome. From there it was down to the game section, where I nabbed a handful of PSone titles for a pittance, as well as a couple of carts that were pretty inexpensive. After dropping back to the hotel to check on Wifey, it was comfort food time so back up the road to Hondori to drop into Lotteria for our first take on Japanese burgers. With some food and a couple of drinks from some vending machines on the way to the hotel (with a stop at a convenience store for some throat lozenges), we finished up the night tucking into our food and watching a movie before getting some sleep.

To view all posts on the Japan 2012 Travel Diary, just use the 2012 Japan Trip tag, as the whole series will be added to it over time.

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